A few days ago, I was sitting at the bus stop on the way to pick up something for dinner. Thunderstorms brooded in the distance, and a knobby-limbed elk sauntered across the road, causing a glut of tourists chattering excitedly in different languages to pull out cameras and point. Suddenly, in a burst of unprovoked curiosity, I asked myself,
“Am I happy?”
I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know how to answer the question. It floated in my mind as I finished my dinner, as I returned my books to the library, and as I talked with my roommates before bed. It seemed like I should know if I was happy or not. We learn when we’re children that happy is the opposite of sad, and what are we supposed to think when we’re somewhere in between?
I’ve had moments here this summer of unsurpassed happiness. Sitting around a bonfire with a guitar, learning Jamaican worship songs and twisting voices together in sublime harmonies. Driving to the city with friends, the radio blaring and our arms out the windows to catch the wind. Preaching. Hiking. Laughing.
But I’ve also had dark moments. Sometimes loneliness wraps me tight like a blanket in the heat. Sometimes my words falter and I’m embarrassed; I’m called out on my mistakes, and I feel ashamed.
If you added up my triumphs and my failures, or averaged the good and bad, I think the trend would be positive. But is that what it means to be happy? Can good cancel out bad, or does it sharpen it?
In English, we’re limited in how we can say what something “is.” I either am happy or I am not. In Spanish, however, there are two words. You can say “Estoy feliz:” I am happy in the moment; or “Soy feliz:” I am a happy person. Happiness is inherent to who I am.
I meet people every day who aren’t happy. And part of that unhappiness comes from the feeling that they should be. Magazines tell us if we were thinner, we’d be happy. Commercials tell us happiness will come if we only eat more. People consume alcohol and exploit relationships all in a desperate attempt to gain something that they’re missing.
But what if we don’t have to be happy all the time?
I treasure the times when “estoy feliz,” but maybe the ability to be constantly happy is unrealistic and even unhealthy. Should we be happy when a loved one is struggling? Should we be happy when we’re lost and we know it?
Sadness, I think, and frustration and sorrow and anger are necessary human emotions. Anger illuminates wrongs in the world and gives us the impetus to fix them. Sorrow stems from empathy, and allows us to encourage others.
Happiness is about me. When I have what I want and when I’m where I want to be, I am happy. These times are wonderful and they are important. But think of where you’d be if you went with “happy” over “right”!
I want to propose an alternative. I want to stop chasing after happiness and instead pursue contentment and joy. These are not emotions, but states of being. They are decisions and outlooks on life. Even when I am not happy, I can choose optimism. I can be content in struggles because I believe in a God who never leaves my side.
I think of Philippians 4:11-13, where the apostle Paul speaks about contentment. He was whipped and shipwrecked and imprisoned and hated by many. Yet he says,
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”
Happiness is overrated. Welcome it with open arms when it comes your way, but don't feel like a failure when it isn't easy. There's more to life than ease and comfort. Instead, choose contentment. Reach out-- choose joy.